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Volume 2, No. 7: July 15, 2005

Motherless Child

by Michael Bouman

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home
A long ways from home
True believer
A long ways from home
Along ways from home

Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone
Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone
Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone
Way up in de heab’nly land
Way up in de heab’nly land
True believer
Way up in de heab’nly land
Way up in de heab’nly land

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home
There’s praying everywhere

From American Negro Spirituals by J.W. Johnson and J.R. Johnson, 1926

My wife and I lost two mothers this year. Gladys, my mother-in-law was 91, enjoying the social life in her Assisted Living dwelling in my wife’s home town of York, an old industrial town in the Pennsylvania Dutch county. Gettysburg is about 30 miles west, Hershey somewhat north, Lancaster and Amish country to the east, and the Chesapeake Bay just to the south.

Gladys came from a seafaring family. Her grandfather, Captain Vaughan, sailed the great clipper ships. The family homestead was in Mays Landing, New Jersey; near my own home place of New Egypt, a farming town in Ocean County. Beautiful soils in New Jersey, rich dark loam in the center of the state, and then sand and pine barrens, and then the smell of sea and the call of shore birds. Gladys came from there and spent her adult life a half-day’s drive away, in York.

She had a large circle of friends even at 91. We had seen them all at her 90th birthday party at one of the elegant places in York, Chapp’s On The Hill. Gladys had practiced yoga and had taken care of herself as she grew older. That's her on the left, 25 years ago on a Mississippi river boat cruise. She was a sociable person, a clothes horse, and she drew a lot of pleasure from small talk. When she first got to know me, she said to Sandra, “Michael doesn’t have any small talk.” It was true. Still is. My small talk is so contrived that you’d think I was writing a wry comedy of some kind. But my mother-in-law loved me as if I was her own child.

We last saw her after Christmas. We took her shopping to a magnificent furniture store in the neighboring town of Red Lion, persuaded her to buy an armoire for her room.  It seemed a better furniture store than anything I know in St. Louis, scaled to the human size rather than to imaginary giants or giant egos, of fine quality, and without obvious ostentation. Ostentation is best when not obvious, right?

Gladys expected to die some day of a stroke. She expected a standard funeral, and she had written meticulous instructions about that funeral. We found and followed them after she died, shortly after Valentine’s Day, of a stroke.

I think Gladys sensed that she was living her last day. Before going to lunch that day she sat in her room and listened to her tape of Kiri Te Kanawa singing Gounod’s "O Divine Redeemer." This was to be the principal music at her funeral. At lunch, enjoying her friends, she slumped in her chair, lost to the world. Two days later, when she "sensed" she was alone in the ICU, she let go of her life. San and I selected the hymns for her funeral service, things Gladys probably knew by heart and all her friends knew, too, and gave her a viewing in the grandest funeral home in York, as she would have hoped, surrounded by her favorite yellow tea roses and pictures of her life and her family, and we buried her in York on a good February day.

In mid-May we went back to York to sort through her clothing and other things and, having looked at them all and remembered her at the times she wore them, packed them in boxes for Good Will. We visited her husband Wilson in the facility for people with dementia and we said our last goodbye to their house. Wilson’s grandson, his closest and nearest kin, will sell it before we next see Wilson, probably.

Gladys had the fortune to have lived long enough to have all the conversations one wishes the time to have with one’s only child; and for San, too, the last years were a good time of laying the bumps of the past to rest. Gladys had the fortune to go quickly and painlessly, unlike so many whose lot it is to suffer.

Edna Bouman, my mother, was 92 when she drew her last breath on June 2. She and Gladys remembered each other's birthdays.  Until last October she was able to live independently in the home she and my father leased in a retirement community when they moved to central Florida in 1996. My Dad passed away in the fall of 2000, and Mom, though she could hardly see any details in the house, managed to keep her independence until her lungs gave out. When she couldn’t manage her own oxygen any more she entered the nursing home.

That definitive episode in October, following the stress of serial hurricanes, took me quickly to Florida, thinking I would be lucky to see her still alive. During my few days there then, I assumed the role of her “breathing and swallowing coach.” In a way that I believe, I was part of the team that saved her life. That became the crowning moment of my relationship with Mom.

Unlike Gladys, Mom was not easily sociable. She had polished social skills, but I think she was phobic about other people. She always existed in a small circle of trusted people. With retirement that circle scattered. She didn’t take to Dad’s new friends, didn’t warm to the neighbors, and became virtually isolated with my sister and brother-in-law, who moved within five minutes of her house in 2002 when they saw that 32-mile round trips were going to kill them before anything happened to Mom.

Mom taught me penmanship before I started Kindergarten...spirals and strokes on paper, sharp pencils, more spirals and strokes. She read to Chris and me every afternoon. She knew only one tune to hum, but not the words, so my first exposure to the Toreador Song from the opera Carmen was by way of its catchy refrain’s first phrase, dum-dum-de-dum-dum dum-de-dum-de-dum. She knew many other tunes, of course, but she only hummed one. She told me once her favorite song was Stardust.

She had worked in New York City right out of Rider College in Trenton, a “green” girl from the sticks in the most exciting city on the continent. That's her college portrait on the left. She is not dreaming of a career in New York; it will surprise her when a professor sees her potential and sets her sights to something she can't even imagine here. A few years later a serious illness would end her metropolitan days and pull her back into the obscurity of central New Jersey, where she would meet a dashing young architect from Minnesota who would marry her and pull her out of obscurity again.

When I was a little pre-school cub, our radio in New Egypt was always tuned to a mid-day program from New York, “Luncheon at Sardi’s.” Being young and illiterate, I heard this program title as nonsense: “Luncheonette Sardis.” I thought a luncheonette was a little diner. Were “sardis” some kind of food, a strange custom? I’m sure I didn’t even know what a custom was at that age!

Mom was my liaison to Dad when I was in high school and college. Mom taught me the arts of euphemism. I don’t know where she picked up her delicate and eliptical verbal manners, but there they were. Euphemisms come naturally to me, and I have Mom’s eye structure.

I do not have her tiny frame. She was about five-foot-two. Her mother was four-nine. I am six-three. You’ll grasp something elemental about Mom’s character if I tell you that even at that small stature she was named to the all-city women’s basketball team while in college. I never saw her play basketball, but as a young child I knew her as a fierce defender of her two kids. She carried ferocious energy in her, could strike terror in the heart of any bully, playmate, or salesman; more than terror…a certainty of death! Imminent, non-revokable, total annihilation! That was Mom. Earthy laughter, bubbles of it in increasing size, but a mirth cooled somewhat with Dad. Dad wasn’t earthy; he came from the land of snow and ice…the Minnesota prairie. He was a strange mix of enthusiasm and Germanic reserve, a jumble of contradictions.  Mom came from Anglo-Irish people.   Before she died I let her know that I will name this big, brilliant, rose-pink daylily MY MOM’S MIRTH some day.  It's one of my hybrid creations.

Mom’s lungs failed her again at the end of May. She was unconscious and seemingly on the way out, when suddenly she was on the way back in! She revived. There were plans to return her to the nursing home the next day. She was in high spirits. For the first time in eight months, she could imagine the treat of going out to lunch with Chris and Jim. She expected tomorrow to be a better day than she’d had in months, and then suddenly she felt a little sleepy and was gone.

I’ve felt like a motherless child since that day in October when I saved her life. She didn’t use her telephone any more after that. We used to talk every Sunday after dinner. She’d had that to look forward to in the four years since Dad died. Sending her letters was not the same as trading quips and gags over the phone. I could get that mirth to come out and show itself in those calls. That connection went away in October, and Mom went away in June.

I’m a long way from home. And yet, I carry vivid memories of Gladys and Edna. Their ways infuse my ways. I carry the good of them. What I carry will infuse all the people I influence in my life. They will carry Gladys and Edna, though thinking they carry only Michael. On and on it will go. This is one of my meanings of the phrase, “eternal life.” We are carriers, all of us, of layers and layers of feeling. Our influences go all the way back to Eve, to First Woman, to Athena even, and beyond, to the dust of stars and the start of time.